Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is a national treasure. Although Howard Hawks may be a name recognized for directing classics like The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo for they still are amidst his most popular directorial efforts a personal connection comes in regards to the fairly ignored Only Angels Have Wings, which not only stands as my favourite of his films but also one of the most inventive means of toying with how we perceive romance in cinema, for if it isn’t the most spectacular of romantic melodramas to have been provided within Hollywood’s Golden Age, what is?
My love of Only Angels Have Wings starts out from how the outer shell comes out into play, providing excitement amidst what also becomes tragic where we would least expect. Only Angels Have Wings gives off romance, comedy, adventure, tragedy, drama, a blend only Howard Hawks could have worked in such a perfectionist manner. For every small detail that works its way into creating a magnificent blend, it can essentially be argued that Only Angels Have Wings might very well be a good, perhaps even the definitive example, of a film that is said to “contain everything.”
The very success to Howard Hawks’s magnum opus comes from its challenging of gender politics within the time, a theme familiar for Howard Hawks. It’s established that there’s an overwhelming sense of masculinity being provided from the men being pictured as the daredevils and how the women come into play as a means of questioning their code. It’s clear from Jean Arthur’s character of Bonnie Lee, Hawks is already mirroring the sort of questions that he knows his audience is set to have amidst the way that he is picturing his men, which only provided much more for myself to admire about Only Angels Have Wings.
It’s evident that Howard Hawks has placed so much care into these characters from how he knows in real life, evoking a more personal attachment in regards to the product and its creator. The care that he places into these people evokes a sense of genuine tension that would work its way to create a powerful emotional beat that would only resonate with the viewers in a manner that the result feels so unexpected. As Hawks plays around with these arcs more and more as the film progresses, it soon comes to the aid of how the film is structured for every second which it lasts and exposes Hawks’s mastery with storytelling.
Cary Grant’s performance is the embodiment of the daredevil pilot. There’s a specific charm just to his presence in every moment he takes on the screen that works its way onto the audience as he’s never less than average, yet here it’s not only in the good image he displays but also in how his character is crafted to be played only by someone like him. An understated performance in the film belongs to Thomas Mitchell, who played “Kid” Dabb. Kid’s arc is perhaps one of the most affecting that I’ve come across when we look into all of classic Hollywood and Hawks’s restraint for sentimentality adds more to the power it leaves behind.
To speak of the female performances in this film, Jean Arthur is especially revelatory as the leading female for this romance. Where we have a world in which these pilots are committing themselves at the risk of their own lives, she is there to offer a contradicting viewpoint that adds to the criticism we have of the masculinity code. We notice that amidst the deaths, she is the most moved, not because she is a weak character, but because of the maturity present within her mentality which has been developing from start to finish, which only goes to form something all the more impactful as the thoughts fill up my mind more.
Even if there’s something obvious with the romance sprouting from the characters of Grant and Arthur, Hawks’s mannerisms with beating out emotion show a sense of honesty that triumphs over what could be passed off as a weak story. It comes down to how acceptance is pictured in such a film, in which the emotional impact just suddenly feels so unexpected given how Howard Hawks has worked with his story structure. The way he holds everything together from beginning to end amidst a story that proves itself all the more thoughtful results in what simply is one of the most intelligent films to come out of this era of Hollywood. We’ve been built up a romance that suddenly at the ending abstains from convention, for the look implies hope but the thought of it is where the power hits, for it is indeed one of the most powerful moments of the film.
Only Angels Have Wings is a film that provides an unusual meshing of comedy and tragedy, driven from the interactions between characters and the masterfully crafted aviation scenes, it’s simply a film that in a way is about everything. Laughter, tears, and excitement, all come to play, inside of an undefinable bag of emotions that have been provoked when viewing the work of director Howard Hawks. I don’t think words alone can do justice to describe what I’ve witnessed in here, for Only Angels Have Wings is truly one of the most affecting films I’ve ever seen, one that’s already rooted itself so securely inside my head for all the power which it is worth. One of the most spectacular films of its era, one of its very own kind.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Columbia Pictures.
Directed by Howard Hawks
Screenplay by Jules Furthman
Produced by Howard Hawks
Starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth, Richard Barthelmess
Release Year: 1939
Running Time: 121 minutes